Much has changed in the 35 years since I first covered baseball’s spring training but that basic attitude of relaxation remains timeless. Baseball simply isn’t a sport that requires much hard work.
To basketball and football players, a baseball training camp is almost laughable. Basketball players probably exert more energy in one scrimmage than baseball players do in a week.
This is not to say that all baseball players ignore the conditioning routines of their basketball and football counterparts. Many train as diligently as basketball and football players, and those are generally the ones who have long careers.
Except for pitchers and catchers, baseball players can get by with a minimum of conditioning. Over the years, many managers tried instituting strenuous workouts, but their efforts went unappreciated and the routines were soon dropped.
A few years back, the Milwaukee Brewers brought in a female aerobics instructor to help whip their players in to shape. So many refused to participate and so many others refused to extend themselves that the idea soon died.
One former Brewer, however, can look back on the experiment with pleasure. Pitcher Moose Haas was so taken with the instructor that he married her.
The relative insignificance of spring exhibitions is not lost on the managers. Because strategy is rarely necessary, some managers have been known to leave their dugouts before the games are over.
When the late Fred Haney managed the Milwaukee Braves in the ‘50s--he later was general manager of the original Angels--he often watched games in Bradenton, Fla. from the porch of the clubhouse near the left-field corner.
When the Dodgers met the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. recently, Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson was interviewed by a reporter in mid-game in front of the clubhouse near the right-field corner.
One bit of spring training drudgery in the old days--lengthy barnstorming tours--has been mercifully eliminated.
Traditionally, teams took tours up to two weeks en route home from their training bases. They traveled by train, and lived in Pullman cars while they made one- and two-day stands along the way. These junkets were gradually shortened, then scrapped. Today, all teams stay at or near their training bases at least until the weekend before the regular season.
The Braves used to tour the South with the Dodgers, who were based in Brooklyn through 1957. Those were the days of segregation, and that meant separate seating areas, separate restrooms, even separate drinking fountains.
Because both teams had outstanding black players--Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Hank Aaron among them--black fans flocked to the games in such cities as Birmingham, Ala., Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Chattanooga, Tenn. There would be empty seats in the white seating areas, but some blacks, whose section was overflowing, had to stand.
Segregation extended to housing in training towns. The Braves, for example, had to put up their black players at Mrs. Gibson’s rooming house in Bradenton because the team’s hotel wouldn’t allow them.
The Dodgers had no such problem. They moved to Dodgertown in 1948, taking over an old naval air base, and the barracks on the base housed all 600 players in their organization.
Playing exhibition road games also could be complicated for most clubs. Those on each coast of Florida made trips to the other coast, and this sometimes meant stopping for dinner. If the restaurant didn’t give a team a private room, the blacks had to stay on the bus and have food brought to them.
The Dodgers solved this problem, too, by buying an airplane. They transported their teams this way for some 20 years before the cost proved prohibitive.
Today, 18 teams train in Florida, seven in Arizona and one in California--the Angels at Palm Springs. Facilities have come a long way in recent years, and the Dodgers have set the pace.
Dodgertown is the prototype, a city within a city, and it’s the only privately owned training camp in baseball. Its hub is Holman Stadium, named for local businessman Bud Holman, who invited the Dodgers to train here after the government turned the military base over to the city of Vero Beach at the end of World War II.
Adjoining the stadium are three full practice fields and a row of batting cages. Nearby is a building that houses major and minor league clubhouses, a medical department, a dining room, a recording studio, a photo dark room, a Western Union office, a working press room, a Stadium Club lounge, an interview room, an equipment room and two laundry rooms.
A 90-unit resort complex stands where the barracks used to be. The Dodger offices occupy an administration building that covers 23,000 square feet.
For recreation, there are two golf courses, an 18-hole layout named Dodger Pines and a nine-hole course; a swimming pool, four tennis courts and a theater at which the movies change nightly.
Dodgertown even has a citrus grove and a conference center, and 45 people live on the perimeter of the 18-hole golf course.
For many years, managers, coaches and scouts in the Dodgers’ farm system served as ushers and ticket-takers for games at Holman Stadium. Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers’ manager, scouted for them in the early ‘60s, and was stationed at one of the gates. He greeted everyone who walked past him with the same ebullience he is known for today.
Now other clubs are getting into the act, or rather other towns are. With attendance double or triple what it was a few years ago, exhibition baseball has evolved into such a big tourist attraction that Florida developers have been luring teams to resort locales with guarantees of gleaming new facilities.
Baseball City, actually part of Haines City, gets the prize for having the fanciest spring stadium. The year-old home of the Kansas City Royals is part of a baseball-amusement complex owned by publishing giant Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
With a parcel such as that waved in front of them, the Royals didn’t hesitate to leave Fort Myers. Similar offers have induced four other clubs to switch Florida bases--the New York Mets from St. Petersburg to Port S. Lucie, the Cincinnati Reds from Tampa to Plant City, the Houston Astros from Cocoa Beach to Kissimmee and the Texas Rangers from Pompano Beach to Port Charlotte.
Now even the Chicago Cubs, who invariably lead the major leagues in exhibition attendance with more than 100,000 fans a year in Mesa, Ariz., are exploring the possibility of a move to Florida. Spring training has truly become big business.
In the past, most parks had only one clubhouse, so teams playing road games usually dressed and took batting practice at home. Now most training bases have minor league clubs, so their parks have two adequate clubhouses.
Living quarters have improved not only for the major league players but for the minor leaguers.
Married major leaguers live in apartments or condominiums, the others in the best available hotels.
There was a time when many teams’ major and minor league camps were located in different states. When the Braves were at Bradenton, their farmhands trained at Myrtle Beach, S.C., then Waycross, Ga., and lived in barracks or dormitories.
Now every minor league complex is in the same town as the main one--in most cases the two are combined--and the players live in hotels, albeit of the economy variety.
Lasorda thinks that this type of setup provides added incentive for the team’s youngsters. He reasons that just seeing the big leaguers serves as an inspiration.
This spring, as the first of two Dodger buses pulled away from the clubhouse for a road game, Lasorda noticed a group of minor leaguers on an adjacent field. They seemed to be watching in awe as the bus went by.
Lasorda sprang out of his front-row seat, turned to face the players on the bus and said, “Look at those guys over there. You know they’d give their eyeteeth to be sitting where you are now. They live for the day when they can wear Dodger blue with pride. You guys are already here. I hope you realize how lucky you are.”
Most baseball players are fans of other sports and other sports teams, and an annual highlight of spring training is the clubhouse pool for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball tournament. In many cases, a player will sell the team he drew and pay a scalper’s price for another. The jockeying for position is intense.
Perhaps more so than the action on the field during spring training.
Of course, optimism is obligatory in the spring, yet managers seem to have cut back on their repertoires of cliches. By the same token, reporters have grown more selective, and many sports editors have instructed their minions to dispense with the once inevitable stories about kids who can’t miss but invariably do.
Although covering spring training is as low key, but it’s a lot more sophisticated than it used to be.